“Vexations” (Erik Satie)

VEXATIONS is a mysterious composition by Erik Satie, which takes on another dimension when the instructions at the top of the score are followed. Satie asks the performer to play the piece 840 times without a break, very slowly, which can take as long as 24 hours. Satie offers the following advice “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, through serious immobility.”

Composed in 1893, VEXATIONS could be perceived as an early piece of conceptual art. Vexations begins with a solo bass line, followed by a harmonisation, a repeat of the solo line, then a second harmonisation. The two harmonisations are almost identical; the second simply inverts the voicings of the first. The score is tricky to read due to Satie’s use of double sharps and double flats, instead of much simpler notation (which would represent the same notes). This makes it curiously difficult to memorise when playing it. Each repetition is almost like reading it afresh, and engaging for the mind. The composition has very little variation in harmony, and employs mostly diminished chords. Couple this with 840 repetitions, and it becomes something quite extraordinary. It generates an interesting static quality, without much sense of forward progression. Satie’s compositions are more concerned with time, over musical material. He described himself as a phonometrographer, meaning “someone who measures (and writes down) sounds”. Satie’s tempo instruction ‘Très Lent’ (Very Slow) is open to interpretation. Variations on this interpretation can result in full performances ranging in length from 14 to over 24 hours.

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Vexations (part one)
January 1 at 1pm EST
on Clubhouse

In 1963, John Cage organised the first full performance of Vexations in New York, with a team of 11 pianists (the Pocket Theatre Piano Relay Team) playing in shifts over the course of 18 hours and 40 minutes. Around this time, in New York, many artists were investigating long form, durational artworks and intense repetition, with Andy Warhol creating ‘Sleep’ and ‘Empire’ alongside the works of composers such as La Monte Young and Tony Conrad.

Performers of Vexations have confessed to experiencing strange feelings induced by the experience. One pianist reached 15 hours of solo repetitions, before having to stop due to intense hallucinations. During the 2 years prior to composing Vexations, Satie was deeply involved with the mystical Rosicrucian movement, and in 1893, Satie broke away from this and started his own religion, of which he remained the sole follower.

1893 was also the year Satie fell in love with Suzanne Valadon, with whom he became obsessed and was his only known romantic relationship, lasting 6 months. Suzanne left whilst Satie was composing Vexations, and following her departure he declared that he was left with “nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness and the heart with sadness”. Perhaps Satie’s unusual performance instructions were a strategy to forget his broken heart. Satie was also known to weave humour into much of his work, so, to take a different perspective, it is feasible he intended Vexations to be a light hearted joke, not to be taken seriously. Perhaps he was ‘playing’ on the academic practice of harmonising bass lines in a baroque style?

It is also worth noting that Satie did not tell anyone about Vexations, and never listed or published it. The composition was discovered posthumously.

It seems that Vexations is a shape-shifter. A curious, paradoxical piece of music that seems to invoke many responses. You may find the piece meditative, irritating, hypnotic, tedious, transcendent, dull, stimulating, boring, … more, or all of the above…

Source: Satie Vexations

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